Sebastian Schutyser
images about the author
about the author
Mali portraits
Adobe mosques of Mali
Flowers of the moon

The Spanish word ermita [English: hermitage] refers to an uninhabited or isolated place, a location for spiritual retreat. In Spain vast stretches of thinly populated land and the ruggedness of the terrain have prevented the urban absorption of these isolated sanctuaries.

Today what we hold to be a hermitage is an idealized concept. Most of us still think of it as a hermit’s dwelling, and even imagine a saintly and bearded man living in it. Of the 575 ermitas I have visited and photographed, only one was actually occupied by a present-day hermit: a young fellow wearing an “I love New York” T-shirt, and yes, a modest beard.

It seems that what really has withstood the erosion of time is a mental construction: the hermitage as the ultimate refuge of modern madness. In an era in which people feel isolated if the battery of their cell phone has died, the notion of spending years without anything but incidental contact with the world is staggering.

These millennium old constructions have been the waypoints of a seven-year quest for a contemporary view on the concept ermita. The solitude and harsh weather conditions taught me more about a hermit’s life than the bibliographical research for this project. It was a profound experience, allowing me much better to understand the transformations these architectural volumes in desolate landscapes undergo by winter light.

The hermitages in these photographs were all chosen for their aura rather than their cultural-historical importance. Some of them are cracked open by time, but still remain hermetic and austere. The almost complete absence of windows gives the buildings a sepulchral quality which is often at odds with the open nature of the land. They seem both alien and organic at the same time. Others are overgrown with vegetation, retreating even more into their surroundings. As they blend with the empty landscapes in which they stand, the original meaning of the word ermita emerges.

The transcription of the word ermita into a visual language is the axis around which this work has evolved. It forced me to keep it simple, and discard anything redundant. My expensive cameras and sophisticated lenses were the first to go. Instead I used the most primitive form of a photographic device, a pinhole camera. The choice of this tool was essential to find the right visual texture. The resulting photographs have the sort of clarity that comes from staring at an object for a long time, while also slightly blurring and distorting the world around the edges—an almost hallucinatory feel that one might get from long periods of isolation.

The use of a pinhole camera was not merely a technical option, but also a philosophical choice. Indeed, a poor man’s camera for a poor man’s church.